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What’s been long-suspected has now been confirmed: Jupiter’s moon Europa has water. As we’ve learned more about the outer Solar System in recent years, Europa has become a high-priority target in the search for life. With this discovery, NASA has just painted a big red bulls-eye on Jupiter’s smallest Galilean moon.
“While scientists have not yet detected liquid water directly, we’ve found the next best thing: water in vapor form.”
Lucas - Paganini - NASA - Planetary - Scientist
Lucas Paganini, NASA Planetary Scientist, Research Lead.
Prior to this discovery, scientists already had some evidence that Europa has the potential to harbor life. The moon has the smoothest surface of any object in the Solar System, which led scientists to hypothesize that it had liquid water in a subsurface ocean, kept above freezing by tidal flexing from Jupiter. That tidal flexing not only keeps the water in liquid form, it creates ice plate movement similar to tectonic plates on Earth, according to the hypothesis.
Evidence - Splotches - Europa - Surface - Scientists
More evidence came from studying the brown splotches on Europa’s surface. Scientists hypothesized that those are chemicals from the subsurface ocean which have made their way to the surface. This shows that the sea floor might be interacting with the surface, an important consideration when thinking about habitability.
The discovery of liquid plumes raised the excitement level about Europa’s potential habitability.
Hubble - Image - Europa - Plume - Water
In 2012 the Hubble captured an image of Europa showing what many interpreted as a plume of water vapor coming out of a crack in the frozen surface, shooting up to about 200 km (120 miles) high. (For comparison, Mt. Everest is only 8.8 km high.) In 2016, there was more evidence from Hubble that suggested plumes.
NASA’s Galileo spacecraft detected perturbations in Jupiter’s magnetic field near Europa during that spacecraft’s time at Jupiter, from 1995 to 2003. Scientists attributed those perturbations to a salty ocean that might exist under the...
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